Expect the unexpected.
If you do, you will never be surprised by what happens.
Not a bad rule to live by, especially in the world of high school sports.
The Southern girls basketball players live by it. It may even be their motto by now.
They had everything neatly wrapped up after three quarters of Saturday’s region championship game.
Then, with a 16-point lead, it appeared to begin to unravel. North Carroll, which had scored 22 points in the first 25 minutes, scored 14 in the next five, moving a 38-22 score to 42-36.
Southern, which had 10 turnovers in the first three quarters, had eight in the fourth. And the Panthers, who made two three-point goals in the first three periods, hit three in a three-minute span.
Suddenly, plans for a state tournament trip were put on hold, and the palms were getting a little sweaty.
But only for the fans in the bleachers. If the Rams on the court were nervous, they didn’t show it.
There were a few bad passes and poor ball-handling decisions for a few tense minutes, but they shook it off. This one wasn’t going to get away, and it didn’t.
“I felt we needed to expect the unexpected. We had never seen North Carroll before. We had never played them before, and we had never played (at North Hagerstown) before,’’ said Mandy Sweitzer, who has 35 points and 35 rebounds in three postseason games.
From the opening tip the Rams played with the confidence of a team that believed it would not be denied a weekend date at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
The Rams will be playing in the backyard of their state tournament semifinal opponent, Western School of Technology and Environmental Science, on Friday at 7 p.m. Western Tech, of Catonsville, beat Fort Hill 54-51 in last year’s semifinals before losing to Dunbar 50-42 in the championship game.
It’s difficult to win playoff games, and Southern’s three regional games were won by a total of 17 points. On Saturday Southern was Ram Tough. Not only did they win, they never trailed. The game was never tied after Sweitzer scored the first points in the opening seconds.
“We play together as a team, and you know if something happens, someone’s got your back,’’ said Hannah Horne. “We all have each other’s backs.
“Our defense won it for us, definitely.”
While the Rams turned it over eight times in the fourth quarter, their defense came up big at times too, as North Carroll had seven fourth-quarter giveaways.
It was the ninth time the Rams allowed an opponent less than 40 points, and the 19th time they allowed 50 points or less.
“I felt confident because of our defense,’’ said Raeslee Weimer. “Defense definitely wins games. I think if you play good defense, your shots are going to fall, and I was confident that they would.”
Little things can take a team a long way. Defense, team play and foul shooting aren’t little things, but they’re becoming more and more overlooked in the Era of the Three-Point Shot.
Only on rare occasions are football games not won in the trenches. And only on rare occasions are basketball games not won inside and on the boards.
In other words, the three-point shot is tempting and pretty, but the two-point shot is still king.
“We really emphasize pounding it inside. That way, if ever our outside game isn’t working, our inside game usually is,” said Alicia Roth. “I was confident and I think we all were after we got past some nerves. We were here to play.”
The Rams, who trailed by 12 in the first half of a section semifinal with Fort Hill and were tied after three quarters in the section final against Mountain Ridge, were aggressive from the start.
Sweitzer hit along the baseline, Weimer drained a three-pointer and Sweitzer scored again on an assist from Roth to make it 7-0 just 2:30 into the game.
When the Panthers closed to 12-8, Roth scored after an offensive rebound to begin another seven-point spurt to start the second quarter.
The Rams had 10 assists, and nothing was bigger than the foul shots after North Carroll had crept to within five and threatened to steal the region title in the final minutes.
“We’re a good shooting team, and shot 71 or 72 percent from the foul line as a team,’’ said Southern coach Danny Bosley.
“The way we handled their press at the end was unusual for us. We’re usually pretty poised, with four seniors and usually at least three on the floor at any time. We actually want people to press us. We like it when they do.”
“We were rushing things for a little bit, but then we collected ourselves and handled things better at the end,” admitted Roth.
The Rams were 9 for 12 from the foul line in the fourth quarter. Horne, Weimer and Sweitzer were all 3 for 4.
“I just told myself that I had to be confident,” Horne said. “If you think you will miss, you will miss.”
The win made the West section champ 5-1 against the East in the last six region finals. Those five West wins have come from four different teams — Southern, Fort Hill, Northern and Allegany.
Southern made 20 of 24 foul shots in the playoff win over Fort Hill, and Horne hit two crucial ones in the final seconds in the win over Mountain Ridge.
The Rams enter the week, unofficially, 274 for 392 from the foul line, 69.8 percent. That’s the best percentage for any team in the area, boys or girls.
“We shoot 100 foul shots every night at practice,’’ said Weimer. “We really focus on that and it’s helped us win a lot of games so far.”
Two more would mean adding another trophy to the already crowded trophycases at Southern. But that’s a problem athletic director Matt Redinger would love to have to deal with a week from now.
Mike Mathews is a Cumberland Times-News sportswriter. Write to him at email@example.com